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NATO agrees to take over control of Libyan mission

A Libyan rebel gestures in the eastern oil town of Ajdabiya on March 24, 2011. AFP PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES/Aris Messinis.

NATO agreed Thursday to become more involved in the international military mission against Libya in an arrangement that papers over the same fault lines that strained the alliance during the Afghan war.

Canadian defence officials expressed satisfaction that NATO, which is turning into the world’s premier police force, will be in charge of both the no-fly zone and the international arms embargo against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime by the weekend.

A deal in principle was reach after drawn-out negotiations, described as “fluid and hot” by Defence Minister Peter MacKay. What remains to be hammered out are the rules under which NATO warplanes can operate.

Early Thursday, the alliance agreed to be in charge of the naval blockade that aims to prevent arms, munitions and mercenaries from slipping in to Libya. But the sticking point remained how far NATO was prepared to go in enforcing the no-fly zone.

Turkey, a major partner and the only Muslim nation in the alliance, balked at warplanes going on the offensive. Germany has made it clear it will not participate in military action and has withdrawn its ships and aircraft from the Mediterranean altogether.

MacKay noted that the aim of negotiations in Brussels was to come up with a hybrid arrangement, much like the division of labour in the Afghan war.

“There are those who are all in, like Canada, and those that have caveats,” MacKay said.

Ottawa was pushing for a deal that would allow some nations to patrol the no-fly zone without resorting to air-to-ground bombing, while other countries, such as the U.S., Britain and Canada, would carry on with more risky assignment of attacking Gadhafi’s military.

“That is Canada’s position. That is what we are advancing and will continue to advance,” he said.

The U.S. has been eager to hand off control of the mission to NATO.

NATO’s secretary general acknowledged the division at a news conference late Thursday.

“At this moment there will still be a coalition operation and a NATO operation,” Fogh Rasmussen said in Brussels. “But we are considering whether NATO should take on the broader responsibility in accordance with the U.N. Security Council resolution, but that decision has not been reached yet.”

It is shades of Afghanistan where Canada, the U.S. and Britain waged a long, bitter, unsuccessful campaign to convince recalcitrant allies to join them in the south of the country fighting the Taliban.

“It really is a multiple choice alliance,” said retired major general Lew MacKenzie, “In other words, you take what you want to do and some aren’t doing anything, others are doing a bit and the rest will take on the heavy lifting. It’s not a great example for the alliance.”

More importantly, MacKenzie warned the international community is on a “really slippery slope” in how it is carrying out the mission.

He said he’s “blown away” by the different interpretations within NATO of what the UN no-fly motion, which authorizes military forces to protect civilians, means.

Attacking Libyan military targets that are not directly threatening the population is outside the bounds of the UN mandate, said MacKenzie, who commanded the peacekeeping mission in the Balkans.

He said an argument could be made that a rebel assault to “liberate” a Gadhafi-controlled town would endanger civilians.

“So what do you do? Bomb the rebels?”

Canadian CF-18s have been tasked with attacking ground targets. The jets have flown four air-to-ground attack missions in the last few days, including blowing up an ammunition depot Wednesday.

No bombs were dropped in the other three sorties, but Maj.-Gen Tom Lawson said the overall campaign is progressing from attacking air threats posed by Libyan jets and helicopters to targets on the ground, such as tanks.

The air raid on Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, came after a week of heavy fighting where forces loyal to Gadhafi were shooting people in the streets, according to eyewitness reports.

The coalition air strikes forced tanks belonging to the regime to withdraw on Wednesday, but they were back under the cover of darkness the next day and apparently tucked up against civilian targets, such as a hospital.

The Harper government initially dispatched six CF-18s to enforce the no-fly zone. It added a seventh aircraft as a spare early this week.

Two C-140 Aurora reconnaissance aircraft were added Thursday to patrol the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya.

The Auroras, out of Comox, B.C., and Greenwood, N.S., carry enough fuel to patrol offshore for 17 hours at a time and are equipped with long-range sensors. They will be based in Italy.

MacKay said the option to send the Auroras was there last week, but the air force wanted to make sure there was no gap in maritime patrols at home.